By Larry Canale
I’ve never lived anywhere near Seattle, and I’ve always been somewhat impartial toward the major sports teams there: Mariners, Seahawks, and, before they became the Oklahoma City Thunder, the NBA’s Supersonics. Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate those franchises and their histories, but I’m on the other coast.
Yet for some reason, I love the Seattle Pilots, baseball’s illustrious one-season team. For one, er, glorious campaign, 1969, the Pilots bungled their way to an “amazin’” season (64 wins, 98 losses) that had some thinking of the early New York Mets.
Today, the Pilots are an overlooked predecessor of the Seattle Mariners and a footnote in Brewers’ history, having moved to Milwaukee in 1970. But they’re definitely not a forgotten club. The memorabilia market makes sure of that, even if the universe of Pilots collectibles isn’t exactly brimming over. Compared to long-in-place franchises like the Yankees, Cubs, Red Sox and White Sox, truly collectible Pilots artifacts – game-worn jerseys, game bats, player uniforms and gloves – are hard to find. Yet the prices aren’t as lofty as you might think. More on that in a minute.
First, consider that singular Pilots season. Former pitcher Jim Bouton’s Ball Four book is your starting point, whether you’ve read and re-read it or never actually picked it up. Bouton’s season-long, no-holds-barred diary documents the characters, highlights and lowlights of the ’69 Pilots, providing an insider’s view of an American League expansion team that wasn’t exactly well stocked with talent.
The Pilots played at Sick’s Stadium – not because they played sick baseball, but because of Emil Sick, who owned the minor-league Seattle Rainiers dating back to the 1930s (he also owned Rainier Brewing Co.). In 1968, Major League Baseball was itching to expand beyond its 20 teams and thus awarded Seattle, Kansas City, San Diego and Montreal each with a new franchise – for $10 million per club. The plan allowed the new teams to stock up with players drafted from existing clubs, who were allowed to protect 15 players prior to the first round and three additional players after each round of selections. (Rumors abounded that the Yankees contemplated leaving Mickey Mantle unprotected, practically daring a new team to draft him. However, The Mick’s retirement made it a moot point.)
After the draft, Seattle (like the other teams) ended up with a mix of journeymen, underachievers and young players with potential. But let’s just say the team wasn’t ready to compete in the first year.
The Pilots did manage to pluck some offense – especially with their first two picks, Don Mincher and Tommy Harper. Mincher, a lumbering lefty-hitting first baseman, blasted 25 home runs during the 1969 season and would ultimately finish with 200 in his career. Third baseman Harper was a speed demon who swiped 73 bases in 1969 and also hit nine home runs. He batted only .235, but he did draw 95 walks.
Tommy Davis gave the Pilots another veteran bat. Davis was a career .294 hitter whose peak season was otherworldly. With the Dodgers in 1962, he hit .348 with 230 hits, 120 runs, 27 homers and 153 RBI. But Davis was known more for bouncing around: He changed teams 13 times in 18 years. Fittingly, Davis didn’t last a season in Seattle; he got peddled to Houston in August 1969, a move that helped the Pilots unload their highest salary ($69,000, well above the $36,500 Mincher earned and the $25,000 Harper made).
The Pilots also snagged Mike Hegan, a young first baseman in the Yankees’ chain. He went on to have a career year with Seattle, batting .292. Ultimately, he was a lifetime .242 hitter known more for his flashy glove work at first base. Then, there was Lou Piniella. Seattle pulled the future star from the Indians’ roster, but Sweet Lou never played for the Pilots. They traded him to Kansas City at the start of the season, and Piniella went on to win the Rookie of the Year award. Oops!
In the end, the Pilots never got very far off the ground. After all, you don’t lose 98 games without having holes, and the Pilots had plenty. They had a shortstop who hit .165 in nearly 300 at-bats (Ray Oyler) and a second baseman who, in 338 at-bats, would drive in just 19 runs and score 22 (John Donaldson). Of their 12 players who had more than 180 plate appearances, only three batted higher than .246.
And that pitching – ouch. The Pilots’ starting rotation included the colorful Gene Brabender and Fred Talbot (see Ball Four), who would post a combined 18-24 record and ERAs of 4.36 and 4.16. The other starters had truly bloated ERAs: Marty Pattin at 5.62 in 34 games, George Brunet at 5.37 in 12 games and future All-Star Mike Marshall at 5.13 in 20 games. The team’s best pitcher was closer Diego Segui, who had a 12-6 record.
The Pilots’ manager was 50-year-old Joe Schultz, a longtime backup catcher who played nine seasons but had only 328 career at-bats, hitting .259 with a single homer. Schultz’s career as a manager began and ended with the ’69 Pilots (not counting a 28-game interim stint for the Tigers in 1973 after Billy Martin was fired).
Clearly, this was an expansion ball club in every respect, even if the Pilots did have a better record than Montreal and San Diego, both of whom were 52-110. (Kansas City, at 69-93, finished five games better than Seattle.)
At least the other expansion teams didn’t desert their cities after one season. The Pilots drew just 677,944 fans all season. Even though that figure beat the attendance of the White Sox, Indians, Phillies and Padres, the Pilots’ principals had committed to build a domed stadium rather than play in Sick’s Stadium, an enlarged minor-league field. The task (and cost) of constructing a new stadium was too daunting, so the club moved eastward.
The Pilots were around just long enough, fortunately, to spawn a nice selection of memorabilia and collectibles that still interest collectors today. The most obvious and most available are baseball cards.
Even though the Pilots were around for only one season, you’ll find them on two years’ worth of Topps cards: 1969 and 1970. The 1969 set is heavy on close-up head shots of players without caps (a standard pose Topps photographers employed in case players got traded). On several cards, though, you can see a player’s previous team’s uniform; there’s Hegan in Yankee pinstripes, for example. And Gary Bell, Chico Salmon and Jose Vidal are obviously in Cleveland Indians jerseys (white vest, red-sleeves), while Segui is wearing an A’s vest-over-jersey outfit.
The best Pilots card, though, is Larry Haney’s. Topps flipped the negative, so we see the catcher in a squatting position with his glove on the “wrong” hand. How many left-handed catchers do you know? (Topps used the same image on his 1968 card, although the image wasn’t flipped.)
When the Pilots announced in early 1970 that they were taking off from Seattle, it was too late to affect Topps’ 1970 set. The company had already designed, produced and began distributing its new cards, so there’s no hint of Milwaukee in the set. As a result, collectors got another year of Seattle players, this time in their white Pilots home uniforms or baby-blue road uniforms.
As in 1969, there are no future Hall of Famers here and no true superstars, except maybe Harper, an All-Star in 1970 and a two-time stolen-base king. (He would have made fantasy baseball players happy, especially in 1970, when he had 31 homers and 38 steals.) But 1970 Pilots cards are a good subset to collect, because they include player stats from the team’s single season in Seattle.
Among the noteworthy 1970 cards: A shot of new manager Dave Bristol; a hatless Rich Rollins, the red-headed third baseman who played in two All-Star games with Minnesota; and an old shot of a smiling John Donaldson in his Oakland uniform.
There’s also an eerie card in the set: the Rookie Stars issue of pitchers Miguel “Mickey” Fuentes and Dick Baney. In January 1970, after the card had already entered the distribution pipeline, Fuentes was shot three times and murdered during a bar fight in his native Puerto Rico. Fuentes, 22, had starred in the minor leagues before getting called up to Seattle late in the 1969 season. He has the distinction of hurling the last pitch by a Seattle Pilot, having retired A’s rookie Reggie Jackson to end the top of the ninth inning of the Pilots’ 1969 season-ending loss to Oakland.
Topps’ Pilots cards are inexpensive; you should be able to get most for less than $5 each (ungraded but in Near Mint condition). Exceptions include 1969 white-letter variations of Segui and Rollins (those go for $20-$60, depending on condition) and high numbers from either year ($5-$25, ungraded). The 1970 Pilots team card is one example of a high-number issue that, if graded, can get pricey. An eBay seller sold a PSA 9 specimen of the card last month for $160.
Don’t forget inserts and separate issues: Topps’ 1969 and 1970 extras included several Pilots pieces. In 1969, Tommy Davis appeared on both a deckle-edge photo card and a decal, both of which can be had for a few bucks. Don Mincher also appeared on a decal.
Topps Team Posters, issued in separate packs in 1969, included all 24 MLB teams. The Pilots issue features head shots of 11 players against a bright green background. The poster’s value today is $75-$150, depending on condition (it’s tough to find without pinholes!).
In 1970, Topps honored Mincher with a mini-poster included in packs, put Hegan on the cover of a scratch-off game and made Harper the subject of an insert story booklet. You can find any of these, again, for less than $5.
The bigger challenge in Pilots-collecting involves memorabilia – out-of-print publications, rarities and game-used artifacts that don’t turn up in every auction. Here’s a sampling of items of intrigue we’ve seen in the hobby.
The Pilots hats were, in a word, awesome. The bill of the team’s cap featured two golden-braid laurel leaves modeled after those worn on the hats of commercial airline captains and U.S. Navy officers. You can find recent reproduction Pilots hats, of course, at typical prices ($25 or so), but the collector in you will want an original game-worn Pilots hat – a rare item that can sell for hundreds.
Last December, Leland’s sold a lot featuring two original Pilots caps, along with 1970s Brewers and 1980s and 1990s Mariners hats (eight in all). Final price: $1,280. Individual Pilots game-used hats have sold in recent years for prices between $250-$500, but they don’t turn up all that often.
Pilots game-worn jerseys are even more valuable than caps. When one lands on the auction block, it generally commands $2,000-$7,000, depending on condition and the player.
Mile High Card Co. offered a 1969 Dick Bates Pilots jersey in January of this year for $8,495 (inclusive of the buyer’s premium). Bates’ major league career lasted 1-2/3 innings, during which he gave up three hits, three walks and five runs.
Heritage Auctions offered Dick Simpson’s game-worn 1969 Pilots road jersey (No. 16) during a 2009 auction, and it sold for $3,585. (And Simpson was hardly an accomplished major-league; a 25-year-old outfielder acquired from the Yankees in May 1969, he hit just .176 in 26 games for Seattle – and never played in the majors again.)
Going back a few years, SCP Auctions sold a top-condition Pilots spring training jersey during a 2006 Internet auction, drawing $2,445. And in October 2011, a Mike Hegan spring training jersey brought $1,930 at Mears Auctions.
Original photos of Pilots players in action sell for around $50. Sometimes you’ll find negatives and transparencies, too, and prices vary greatly. A color negative of Mincher batting during a spring training game fetched $35 on eBay in January, for example, while in April, a black-and-white negative of Brabender on the mound sold for $90.
Pilots yearbooks occasionally turn up in the marketplace and sell for $100 and $175 in Excellent or Near Mint condition. Ticket stubs go for $75 for most games, but $100-$150 for an opening-night stub (April 12, 1969). Pilots scorebooks, likewise, sell in the same range, although a scorebook from the first home game can command more. Media guides from 1969 sell for around $125, as do 1970 media guides. Original signed player contracts are scarce, and thus, they can sell for a few hundred dollars.
And finally, to tie things together, there’s Ball Four. You can pick up a reprint or revised edition for your reading pleasure for $10 – or, if the collector in you wants a signed first-edition, first-printing copy – you’ll spend $100 or more. But it certainly belongs in any Pilots stash.
Larry Canale is author of the book “Mickey Mantle: Memories & Memorabilia” (Krause, 2011) and editor-in-chief of “Antiques Roadshow Insider.” He also spent six years editing Tuff Stuff magazine and has authored two books with photographer Ozzie Sweet: “Mickey Mantle/The Yankee Years” (1998) and “The Boys of Spring” (2005). He can be reached at email@example.com.